There’s something so brilliant about tapas in winter in London, and I think that it has has something to do with it constantly pissing down in the city, and the subsequent juxtaposition of summery food, jumpy little servers and free-flowing booze of every kind. You see, tapas is not difficult to do well – at least in my perception.
Having said that, there’s tapas and there’s Tapas. La Tasca, though respectable and decent as a chain, is the former, whereas the latter is stealthily championed by a quietly brilliant few haunts, my personal favourite being Meson don Felipe, down at Waterloo. It’s not well written up by the folks who use Tripadvisor, but down forget that this website’s content is largely delivered by the bitter, clueless, those who think that sarcasm is the highest form of wit or ‘global travellers’ that write comments like “it’s not the same as in Spain”. No, it wouldn’t be, would it. Navarro’s, on Charlotte Street, is well-regarded too.
Anyway, there are a few more places to choose from if you’d wish a tapas restaurant to stand out (it’s great date food by the way) and a few of these restaurants are owned by the hoity-toity Salt Yard group, of Salt Yard (duh), Opera Tavern and Dehesa and fame (I was first alerted to the existence of Opera Tavern when I heard rumours of a pork burger with gooey Idiazabal cheese stirring up chaos from the gastronomically knowledgable all over town). Tapas is big business; a real money spinner if you studied a menu engineering module at uni like me, so coupled with London’s favourite mantra of ‘simple things done so well you’ll sell a kidney to have it’, Salt Yard would have done well to expand, and they did. Enter, if you will, Ember Yard, on Berwick Street in Soho. It’s practically on Oxford Street but don’t let that fool you.
Coming from someone who preaches ‘Authenticity’ for a living, I like my tapas restaurants to be proper divey – maybe because subconsciously it’s in keeping with Spain’s robust economy – but if you’re after chipped walls, Estrella everywhere and bright yellow and red washed walls, then you better keep on walking. Ember Yard, with tables and tapas bars spread over the basement and ground floors, is muted, classy and a far cry from customary chaos and wonderful disorder. You’re through the door and thrown into a den of deep woods, dark lighting, classy paintings, lanky wine glasses (I’m a massive glass whore now) and perfect service. I say that because tapas servers tend to be as crazy and colourful as the restaurant and just as open to interpretation; you’ll love their bounciness and rapid fire table touches or hate the inevitable frequency of smashes and the accompanying cheers as plates and glasses go flying. At Ember Yard, it’s like the waitresses (didn’t see a bloke all night) have been drinking gin all night. I’m just assuming that gin affects everyone like it does me, making one laid back, attentive, timely and respectful, obviously. Not “way raw” (© Elle R, 2014).
I felt like getting a bit laid back, attentive, timely and respectful too so hit the cocktails. The list is concise – a few classics and a few originals, alas, light on the gin. We were both lusting after wine so one round was enough. A Cosmopolitan was well-constructed and thoughtful, however I was bowled over with the Ember & Ash, a mixologist’s equivalent to dark satin sheets and an aura of the mysterious – in layman’s terms – raisin rum, Pedro Ximénez and bourbon smoke. It’s served in a glass with a bespoke lid (glass whore time again) and I could lose myself in not just the taste, but by simply huffing whiskey. The wine list is well-ordered and just the right size (big enough to surprise, small enough to order from), but we found that a Tuscan Sangiovese was perfect for the plethora of food we had coming our way.
And what of the food! This is tapas – primary of the Spanish variety but expect a few Italian flavours to be thrown around too – crafted to perfection with a startlingly clinical attention to detail and exquisite presentation. No bowls of chorizo in red sauce here.
Ibérico pork rib and celeriac purée was as downtrodden as the tapas came, compelling you to put down the cutlery, get your lips out and gnaw away. They were sticky, blackened, and mahoosive. The lamb once again won me over; melty and smokey, served with aubergine. I hate to admit it but I may actually like lamb, after fifteen years of hurt. Chargrilled Cornish mackerel was served with a cuddly and hearty stew-like pool of mussel Escabeche, piquillo and sea purslane, and contrasted to our second fish choice of bream carpaccio with blood orange, almost like ceviche in it’s lightness and touchy presentation.
Salt Yard Group are somewhat known for their courgette flowers stuffed with goats cheese, so it would have been rude not to have a couple. There were the first dish to arrive and I could have nailed them all night. Me. And veg. You heard it here first. There was so much on the menu we had to ignore (part due to appetite part due to price – it’s not the cheapest tapas as you may expect) but everything looked orderable (?), even the aforementioned burgers – present on the menu here as well – were not quite enticing enough to make our distinguished shortlist.
Don’t you dare stop reading and think the story ends with great tapas. A plate of Spanish cheese (the waitress offered to bring it after the rest of the food – a touch I couldn’t not gush about) was generous to say the least – a couple of boards full of rosemary Manchego, Garrotxa, Torta de Barros and Treviso Blue. And quince. Grin! And then desserts, a bitter chocolate ganache with salted caramel ice cream which was just a little bit short of richness (suprising as everything is loaded with the most perfect tastes and textures), completely overshadowed by the unbelievable Caprini cheesecake, basking in the lavish richness of Amaretti and a delicious sharpness of orange. Not quite a JW Steakhouse cheesecake-beater, but the closest I have found in London.
We settled up and made to leave. The waitress cocked us and was over with our coats without missing a beat. For a restaurant with such a surprising and welcome attention to detail (pigs head beer taps, anyone?), I was somehow left wanting and was not sure at first why. It was the best food I have had in a while.
It hit me as I walked out of the restaurant, past the murmuring, sophisticated tables and discrete staff. Ember Yard is missing something shite but crucial – a certain emanation of ‘who gives a shit’ kind of chaos that lends itself so well to tapas. In this case, I think we’re missing the greasy tables, hastily wiped with blue roll and the vibe of an egregious guitar player banging out flamenco-riffed covers of Billy Jean. And the more I think of tapas in general, the inherent simplicity of the food – whether a plate costs five or ten quid, whether you are at La Tasca or Dehesa – that this atmosphere is what I was yearning for. Tumbling out of a still-packed restaurant (it was now gone ten on a Sunday night) into a rainy and, it has to be said, grotty street on Soho soon corrected any personal imbalance and incertitude of what is right or wrong. And seconds later, as my coat began to get sodden and my shoe started to leak, I came full circle realised that Ember Yard is special, incomparable, and worth a return where everything about it will earn my renewed surprise.
Cocktails £ten to £twelve, wine starts at £twenty-five for a bottle. Tapas from £seven to £fifteen per plate, desserts, charcuterie and cheese boards £twelve, puddings £six
emberyard.co.uk | @SaltYardGroup, @EmberYard | | 0207 439 8057 | 60 Berwick Street, London, W1F 8SU